What Does Repentance Mean for Us?
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
1 April 2007
Last year after Bob Kremer had his amputation, he and Ron asked if the church could build a wheelchair ramp at their home. So we made plans. One Friday Michael Bratcher and I met Beth and Patty at Home Depot to pick out the lumber. Michael was dressed in his usual Kenneth Cole dress clothes but was a trooper trying to help.
The next day Beth, David Disbrow, Patty, and myself got together at Bob and Ron’s and worked on the ramp. At one point I saw Pete Keltch drive by and thought maybe he’d be stopping to help, but he kept on driving. Later he said he just happened to be in the neighborhood on a different errand and didn’t know we were there nor see us. I’ve always been a little skeptical.
A wheel chair ramp is not the easiest thing to construct, because you have to grade it just right. The other problem was that it needed to curve. Which made for tricky construction. At times Beth, David, and I probably looked more like a comedy act than a construction crew.
But we got it done. It wasn’t elegant, but it was done. And Bob and Ron were so excited when they brought him home and he could get easily into the house.
This is a simple little story, but it illustrates church, I think. It illustrates one aspect of what it means to participate in the way of God as revealed in Jesus.
Last week for the membership class I read a passage from Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon that quite accurately describes what I think the church is.
In Jesus we meet not a presentation of basic ideas about God, world, and humanity, but an invitation to join up, to become part of a movement, a people. . . . Christianity is an invitation to be part of an alien people who make a difference because they see something that cannot otherwise be seen without Christ. Right living is more the challenge than right thinking. The challenge is not the intellectual one but the political one – the creation of a new people who have aligned themselves with the seismic shift that has occurred in the world since Christ.
Lent, as a season, is focused on preparation for Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It is a time of reflection and confession. During this season we are to take a good look at ourselves as individuals and as a people and see how we fall short of God’s will and take the steps to move in the direction that God would have us move. This Lent in our worship we’ve asked questions about sin, evil, and violence as part of this time of preparation. Today our question is “what does repentance mean for us?” How do we complete this season of reflection and preparation?
o repent means to join in this great adventure story – to become part of this people. It means to see things in a new light. It means we trust in God.
We’ve talked a lot this season about nonviolence and peacemaking. But how can we have the courage to live this way when the path of violence is easier and seems more effective? We can live peacefully because we trust that God is in control.
We can only trust God as sovereign, when we realize that we are not. We must realize that we are sinners -- that we participate in evil and suffering and violence. We are caught up in the structures of sin that imprison this world. But we are not alone. All of creation is fallen. All creation, all persons stand equally in need of the grace of God. God’s sovereign grace frees us from guilt and anxiety and liberates us to join in God’s work of making creation more like God – an ecstatic fellowship of love.
Sometimes it is difficult to acknowledge God’s sovereignty. We wonder why bad things happen. Sometimes the suffering and evil of this world make us cry out in pain and anger wondering where God is.
The answer is that God is there in the midst of suffering and evil, working with us to change the world. How do I know this? Because I have seen it in Jesus Christ and his followers.
When someone asks me, “What is God like?” I point to Jesus. If someone asks me the question, “Does God exist?” I change the question by pointing to Jesus and saying, “If God exists, then that’s what God is like.”
Jesus, the Christ, is the revelation of God to humankind. Jesus incarnates divinity and humanity. Jesus shows us what it means to be fully human. And Jesus shows us what it means to be divine.
And the way of God revealed in Jesus feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, heals the sick, visits those in prison, cares for widows and orphans, values the mentally ill, forgives the sinner, includes the outcast, treats women as worthy, receives children, confronts the powers-that-be, and dies on the cross. Jesus reveals that the way of God is the way of extravagant grace, radical inclusion, and relentless compassion. The way of God is deeply involved in the suffering of this world, creating change, transforming lives, and bringing joy.
We see that here all the time. Last week as I listened to those taking the new members class, they shared stories of pain and anxiety as they struggled with their identity and their spirituality. Then they tell stories of joy and healing as they encountered God in this place.
This is a place filled with humour. Just hang around and you’ll hear lots of jokes and funny stories. We share an intimacy that allows us to be real with each other.
Jesus not only reveals the transforming way of God, but Jesus called on others to follow. And so from those first few who heard him preach in Galilee until those of us around the world gathered for worship today, people have joined in, participating in and imitating the way of God revealed in Jesus. This movement is the church.
Today’s Philippians passage is my favourite passage of scripture. I have preached it and taught it numerous times, but each time it can be approached from a different direction. Today I approach it as a text that tells us how the church participates in Christ. Just as Jesus was about transformation, so are we.
How do we live into the way of God? How do we continue to incarnate God in this world? How do we participate in the life of Jesus? By creating community. The most important and radical thing we do is create genuine community. Just as God is an ecstatic fellowship, so ought we to be.
We can help to bring about more justice and peace and liberate people from the power of sin when we work together at forming a community that is the Body of Christ. How do we do that? Paul’s pretty clear in this passage. It involves things like encouragement, sharing, compassion, sympathy, joy, unity, love, accord, humility, looking out for each other more than ourselves, avoiding selfish ambition and conceit. In other words, having the same mind as Christ Jesus.
Barbara Brown Taylor, the retired Episcopal priest, writes that churches today so often forget that their task is transformation of people into a community. Instead, churches tend to one of two extremes. Some churches beat people over the head with guilt and shame about individual actions. I had a friend who when she became pregnant as a teenager she was brought before her church and faced public rebuke. Some of you may have encountered varying degrees of this.
The other extreme completely overlooks the need for people to be transformed by becoming something like a clinic. Sick people come and receive palliative care, but there is no emphasis on change, growth, or transformation.
Churches should minister to people in need. But that doesn’t mean that the church is all about meeting your “needs.” Church is much more about what you give to it, what you put into it, than it is about what you get out of it. Of course there are times in our lives when we all need to draw more from the community than we can put into it. I want to be frank about something here. When I hear that someone has quit coming to church because they think the church has failed them in some way, one of my first impulses is to wonder why that person has misunderstood church – how have we failed to convey what church is really about. If a person feels that something is an important thing that the church should be doing and feel that it isn’t being done, then if they are a member of the body, they should jump in and be active at making that thing happen. I repeat, church is much more about what you put into it than it is about what you get out of it.
I hope church blesses people. I hope church ministers to people’s needs. But the way church really blesses people in the long run is that it invites them to live in a community of transformation. And living in such a community is not easy. It means sometimes you don’t get your way. Sometimes your expectations are not met. Sometimes you might get hurt. That’s part of it. Change and transformation are not easy. I repeatedly call the church an adventure journey. Well journeys that are adventurous are distinguished from journeys that are boring because the adventurous ones involve danger, risk, and often more downs than they do ups.
To illustrate, I want to repeat a story that I’ve shared with you before, but it has been awhile. It was an experience of mine while on a trip with some members of our college group at Royal Lane. It’s also a story that illustrates church. Listen to this story and pick out how it corresponds to the adventure journey that is the church.
In August 2004 Anna Lou Brown, Lindsey Washington, Barrett Wooten, and I went hiking along the southernmost miles of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. We started in the late afternoon our first day and climbed Preacher’s Rock, where we had a spectacular view of the mountains of north Georgia. The hike the next day took us along a lovely bit of trail called Lisp Gap that was gentle and easy. You could see distances through the woods and hear birds singing. But in those first two days we made three mistakes in using the guide book, either our own mistakes of interpretation or mistakes in the guidebook’s instructions. The worst of these mistakes occurred the second night when we walked uphill for over a mile only to discover that we had missed the campsite and had to turn back around. So, the next day when we had to retrace our steps over that same ground we were less than energetic. But once we had moved past that part of the trail, our spirits lifted.
The third day was the hottest and we couldn’t find as much water as the other days. Lindsey and Barrett both ran out of water at one point, but we did find some at the top of the next hill. That third night we stayed in a gorgeous spot, Long Creek Falls. It looked like something out of a movie set – tall pine trees, rhododendron trees, a bed of pine needles, an incredible, cascading falls, soft moss, clear, cold water, all with the sun breaking through just above. You could only get to this beautiful spot by hiking into it.
But then it rained all that night. And the tent Barrett and I were in leaked. There was water standing at my feet and a leak just over my head and I kept trying to scrunch down to stay between the two and it didn’t work.
The next day we were soaked and miserable starting out, but had a good day of hiking. We reached the summit at Mt. Springer and the official starting place of the trail. We hiked on to the next shelter. That was our coldest night. We were, fortunately, in a shelter and used some dirty old blankets that some other folk had left to create a wind block. We all crawled into our sleeping bags early and layered ourselves with clothes. We huddled as closely as we could.
The final day of the hike we were all tired and looking forward to a good meal and a warm shower. It was the loveliest day of the hike. We passed through fields of black-eyed susans where you could see flowers in every direction as far as the eye could see. Anna Lou and I kept stopping to marvel at the amazing engineering and architecture of the spider webs. As we all climbed to the top of this one hill we reached a spot where the fog was lifting and the sun was just breaking through the clouds and the tree tops and the light looked like “God-light” that you see in Christian calendars. Each of us talked later about how when we reached that spot we had felt compelled to pray.
The hike ended by Barrett getting way out ahead of us and getting lost and hurt, but we found him, got cleaned up, and headed for our hotel and a good meal.
Upon completing the hike I was thrilled with a sense of accomplishment. I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it, or how I would do on the trip, never having done anything like it before. And the strange thing with a trip like this is that most individual moments of the hike are not that enjoyable. Most individual moments are pretty miserable as your pack is heavy, your feet are tired, your muscles are sore. But the funny thing is that the totality of the moments is quite enjoyable.
To repent is to join in a journey like that. The church isn’t a hammer beating us up or a clinic that indulges our sickness. It is a difficult, but joyful, journey of transformation. Barbara Brown Taylor describes it this way:
The church exists so that God has a community in which to save people from meaninglessness, by reminding them who they are and what they are for. The church exists so that God has a place to point people toward a purpose as big as their capabilities, and to help them identify all the ways they flee from that high call. The church exists so that people have a community in which they may confess their sin – their own turning away from life, whatever form that destructiveness may take for them – as well as a community that will support them to turn back again. The church exists so that people have a place where they may repent of their fear, their hardness of heart, their isolation and loss of vision, and where – having repented – they may be restored to fullness of life.